In 2009, AIDS activist and former NDP politician Stephen Lewis spoke to an audience at the University of Lethbridge about global health. During questioning, someone asked Lewis about famed Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo.
Moyo, in her book Dead Aid, criticizes government-to-government aid to African countries, pointing out that after $1 trillion in aid over decades, Africa is poorer.
Lewis scoffed and attempted to refute the arguments of the Oxford and Harvard educated African woman, claiming that she did not know what she was talking about.
Part of the problem was Lewis’ dislike of free markets. Lewis’ hasty dismissal illustrates the problem with economic dependency today: it is dominated by well-meaning Westerners who try to insulate minorities from criticism and are enemies of market solutions to poverty. The problem of ‘White liberal guilt’ is as visible in the area of indigenous dependency as it is in international aid.
Calvin Helin artfully identifies the problem in his new book The Economic Dependency Trap: Breaking Free to Self-Reliance. Helin is a successful BC First Nation businessman and lawyer. His first work, Dances with Dependency, focused on economic dependency among Canada’s indigenous peoples. In The Economic Dependency Trap is part societal critique and part self-help guide.
This problem does not only affect the welfare-dependent poor. The problems associated with what Helin calls “affluenza,” a sense of entitlement and lack of skills to lead independent lives, also affects children in affluent families.
When it comes to helping people concretely, Helin shows how “free money” and the welfare industry have failed. The Great Society of Lyndon Johnson, despite its massive transfer of resources from taxpayers to America’s underclass, did not solve poverty, but trapped millions of Americans in a cycle of inter-generational welfare dependency and poverty. Helin points out 20 per cent of the population or 60 million Americans are reliant on federal and state aid for basic needs. Well-meaning technocrats and the welfare industry fail to recognize the human inclination to value money earned for productive work. Our intrinsic sense of self-worth seeks personal accomplishments. When humans receive “free money” or are actively discouraged from meaningful work, their sense of worth disappears and dysfunction arises.
Government-to-citizen is not the only form of dependency. Helin identifies government-to-government dependency in transfers to Native American governments or federal equalization systems and in how Western countries support developing countries with money. Without institutional reform and accountability, aid is siphoned off to Third World elites or to unproductive, politicized ventures.
Helin is not simply a libertarian polemicist opposing all government intervention. He supports limited social welfare. He presents a nuanced look at how societal values and individual character matter. Wealth and success, he argues, has made us complacent and narcissistic. Our spoon-fed sense of entitlement has shaped character and warped our values. A renewed sense of self-discipline and self-reliance is needed on the part of individuals and governments. Helin distinguishes between healthy interdependence and excessive over-reliance. It is healthy to reach out to family, community and faith communities when in need. It is excessive when dependence on bureaucracy replaces natural links.
Some may argue Helin’s decision to include self-help advice makes the work ‘uneven.’ I disagree because he integrates it well. While it could have been two books, the two portions seem essential in that he provides with them practical help for individuals seeking to escape dependency. Readers might be sceptical of Eastern-style philosophies through which Helin advances an attitude of ‘mind over matter’, but there is much credibility to ideas that thoughts influence behaviour.
The author outlines solutions, although he doesn’t always provide specific measures. Governments, of all stripes, must recognize modern welfare has failed and stand up against the welfare industry. Only incentive-based policies involving education, property ownership, and entrepreneurship will work. This is what well-intentioned Western activists like Stephen Lewis miss and economist Dambisa Moyo get. The difference is that Moyo, lacking in Western guilt, sees the consequences of “affluenza,” and can say the truth.
Calvin, once again, has produced a great work of revolutionary common sense backed by plentiful research. People in dependency, middle class parents and policy makers should read this work. It is a call to the dependency industry to stop harming the people they intend to help and focus on real solutions.
Calvin Helin, The Economic Dependency Trap: Breaking Free to Self-Reliance. St. Louis, MO: Ravencrest Publishing, 2011. 354 pages, $27.95